Many news sources worldwide reported on the state of emergency declared on the Russian archipelago Novaya Zemlya. The reason for the emergency is that there are over 50 polar bears ‘terrorizing’ the township of Belushya Guba. The animals stay near residential buildings in spite of all attempts to scare them away. The local residents are afraid to leave their homes, and some bears even began to penetrate the buildings. Rosprirodnadzor (controlling body for environment protection) did not authorize killing problem bears. Instead, they formed a commission which was to fly to the islands Tuesday and make a decision on the spot.
The information presented in English-language news sources is accurate (although slightly incomplete), and there wouldn’t be any need in my comments on the issue, if it weren’t for the reaction of the hunting community. “Time to thin the herd”. “Weren’t the polar bears supposed to die because of global warning?”, “bad government won’t let good people kill bad bears”, and comments on these lines seem to fill the hunting pages in social media. And, I have to respectfully suggest that these commenters might be jumping to conclusion without first properly informing themselves of all aspects of the issue.
I covered this situation for Russian Hunting Magazine, and we have asked for commentary from Anatoly Kochnev, a person with tons of field studies in maritime mammals under his belt. He has been closely observing polar bear and walrus (and by “closely” I mean close enough to reach out and pet the animals) for decades on end, he does not receive financing from any group of interest, and he’s already lost one job because of his harmful habit of saying things as they are.
Here’s what he said:
“There’s nothing unusual or sensational in what happens in the township of Belushya Guba on Novaya Zemlya. Even though it’s mid-winter, the Barents Sea near Novaya Zemlya is almost entirely free of ice. In the Kara Gates and the Pechora Sea the ice is still thin, and it’s difficult for bears to hunt on it. However, the Kara Sea is still covered by thick year-old ice that is carried by small fields to the Barents Sea coast of the archipelago. On clear water the fields break down, and the bears that sailed on them try to return to the Kara Sea. They walk north along the Barents Sea coastline of the Novaya Zemlya, and on this route they simply can’t miss the Belushya Guba. There the abundance of food in the township’s trash heaps can’t fail to attract the bears’ attention. In winter in the Arctic a bear has to work hard to catch a seal. And there you have a free buffet! Naturally bears drop by for a bite, and won’t leave until they’ve eaten everything there is to eat. Here on Chukotka it happens all the time, but the bears also often find carcasses of whales or walruses that remain on the shoreline since summer, and don’t visit settlements in such numbers. Novaya Zemlya is not as reach in natural food sources, but there’s a magnificent trash heap, that’s an adequate replacement for a whale carcass.
I should say that similar situations near the Belushya Guba happened more than once during the last decades, only they didn’t involve just as many bears. But hope for the best is perhaps the most important part of our mentality. This is why the township, just as many other settlements in the Russian Arctic, wasn’t ready for the bear invasion. Declaring states of emergency won’t help things, what’s needed is preventive measures that are long overdue. Otherwise, both bears and humans will get hurt…”
An important case in point, and one that is often ignored, is that Novaya Zemlya is a top secret military site. You can’t enter the islands without a special permit, and they are effectively out of reach and control of the civilian administration, including Rosprirodnadzor (controlling body for environment protection). The Russian Military has a strong history of total and blatant disregard for the environment (“the nation’s defense is more important than flowers and bees”) and misinforming the public (“if we tell the truth, the enemy might use it against us”). So I totally understand that Rosprirodnadzor doesn’t want to make any decisions without first seeing everything with their own eyes. I wouldn’t be surprised either if it turns out that the very declaration of the state of emergency has been made only to make it easier for the commission to obtain permits to visit.
In any case:
- No matter how much I support hunting in general, and hunting as a management tool for endangered animals in particular, the current situation on Belushya Guba is not evidence for one or the other.
- It doesn’t prove that polar bears are overpopulated. It doesn’t mean there’s more bears, it means that the population that used to be spread over thousands of square kilometers of ice fields is now concentrated on one trash heap.
- It is not evidence against climate change. Just the other way round, the bears could not disperse over ice fields because ice fields are melting.
- The situation is a people problem, not a bear problem. You should see the pics of the trash people on Novaya Zemlya throw around.
- Killing one or two problem bears might be a temporary solution, but it won’t change polar bear migration routes, and won’t get rid of trash heaps.
- Hunting or culling is not the solution for the general problem: environmentally questionable and intransparent Russian presence in the Arctic.